Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Incredible but true

I know I promised to record this amazing journey, but as the days go by and it seems to get hotter and stickier everywhere we go, the thought of documenting our 20 odd hours of travel from Sihanoukville to Ho Chi Minh City seems like torture, but I will give it a try.

After our disappointing boat trip to Ream National Park, tired and overheated, we stumbled into the same travel agency where we booked the trip, to politely tell our cute young agent that the trip was not what we had expected. She smiled sweetly and sort of apologized and before we knew it, we were discussing our travel plans for the next day. Sihanoukville is kind of like Khao Lak in the sense that it is easy to get to, but not easy to get out of efficiently. We could take a three stop process including the border crossing into Vietnam which sounded awful and really long, or we could (after many phone calls to who knows who) for a slightly more expensive ticket, take a minivan to one town where we would cross the border into Vietnam (with a handy dandy fixer) and then get right on to a big air-conditioned bus all the way to Ho Chi Minh. We presented our usual shpiel about needing to sit at the front of the bus. A few more phone calls and she ‘verified’ that the bus would wait for us at the border, the fixer and minivan would cross the border into Vietnam to take us to the bus and provide us with our tickets. In fact, our adorable travel agent indicated that bus seats 3 and 4 were reserved for us. Surely we had covered all of our bases this time.

The next morning a minivan did pick us up exactly on time and then proceeded to pick up everyone else in town until the minivan was overflowing. We drove the three hours to the border (which really was five hours). Miraculously, we left Cambodia and entered Vietnam without too much trouble. The fixer did accompany all of us and did pay some kind of bribe to get us all through the various border points without problems. But it did take an hour. By the time we got into Vietnam, needless to say, there was no big air-conditioned bus waiting for us. It had left hours before. There was a minivan going, not to Ho Chi Minh City, but to Chau Doc (which was at least four hours away), where there was a second promised big air-conditioned bus that would take us to HCMC.

Our Cambodian fixer ran off in the direction of the ferry to escort other passengers. Marc went running after him. Meanwhile, the Vietnam fixer told me the promised “big” bus had left hours ago. So, there was no bus, only the minivan and I should just get in. Marc and our fixer reappeared and we were told again that there was no bus. The two fixers were by now in a heated argument, and the minivan closed its doors and headed for Chau Doc without us. A second minivan heading back to the Cambodian border arrived and our fixer piled us in mumbling something about finding another way. Marc was insistent that we at least go to the bus station to inquire about other buses.

Before I go any further, you must understand our situation. As with our previous experience crossing the border from Thailand to Cambodia, the system appears to transform from initial paper receipts, that transform to stickers, which ultimately relies on blind faith. We had given our receipt to our fixer and were not in possession of any verification that we had paid for a fare all the way to HCMC. We were in Vietnam, in a very small border town, without any local money. (Although we were readily offered a good (not!) exchange rate for our US dollars. And Ho Chi Minh City was at least eleven hours away. Do the math, we would be arriving close to midnight in a strange city with only a tentative hotel reservation. More on that later …

On Marc’s advice, our fixer thought about his predicament and decided to return to the bus station to see if there were any other buses. I had one look at the bus station and knew that big tourist class buses with air-conditioning had never been anywhere near this place. Our fixer left the minivan, had some discussion with a few people in sign language (He spoke no Vietnamese and they spoke no Kampuchean). Some money changed hands and he was back to tell us there was a bus going to Can Tho at 2:00. From there the bus driver would put us on a “big” bus to HCMC. Can Tho was six hours away.

Hmmm …

Someone put our luggage under the bus. We asked our fixer for some kind of ticket/receipt/letter to the bus driver, to be sure we would actually get on a bus in Can Tho. He gladly made out another receipt, but we knew no one in Can Tho would honour a piece of paper that had no value. Still it was a nice to have as a souvenir! He apologized over and over again and promised it would all work out. But, objectively, how could it possibly? We had already decided we would likely find a hotel in Can Tho and find our own air-conditioned bus to HCMC in the morning.

Marc did a quick walk around town and when no official money changer seemed to be available we changed $5 to have at least a bit of money for drinks until we got to, well, wherever we would end up by midnight. Our new best friends were quite disappointed when they could only rip us off $5’s worth and disappeared after we received our 95,000 Dong (should have been 104,000). We waited patiently in the shade until 2:00 and boarded the local red bus headed for Can Tho.

The bus stopped on average every five minutes to let someone on or off. Well almost stopped. This was the kind of bus that slows down and you jump on or off. The whole busload of people seemed to be friends, and there was a lively conversation going on non stop. This would not have been an issue if the bus driver was not as involved as everyone else. One hand on the steering wheel while the other multi-tasked to constantly blow his horn, listen to his cell phone, chain smoke cigarettes, or to drink from a giant coffee canister. All done while dodging cars, buses, trucks and motor bikes while totally involved in all of the many conversations being held throughout the bus.

As all of the seats filled on the bus, small plastic seats appeared to fill the aisle, so that more people could jump on the bus. The last few people sat on the floor beside the driver to distract him just a bit by offering him cigarettes or engage him in more conversation. We literally had front row seats to witness this madness (not to mention inhaling the second hand smoke from the not only the driver, but also from the ticket taker and our fellow passengers.) The temperature in the bus was about 30 degrees.

It was soon dark and we were still on the road with our crazy driver and a lively, bursting at the seams busload of Vietnamese. We rolled into the Can Tho bus station at 8:00 pm, six hours after leaving the border town of Ha Tien.

The next part is nothing short of miraculous.

We got off the bus fully expecting that no one would have any idea who we were, where we were going, or that we had paid for bus tickets to HCMC. We were six hours from where our fixer dropped us off, in a different country from where we had initially purchased our bus tickets. Yet someone WAS waiting for us. Our bus driver rushed us off the bus, helped us get our luggage out of the cargo hold of the bus and motioned us in the direction of another man waiting to take us to — a minivan full of local people going to — you guessed it, Ho Chi Minh City.

I was skeptical. The minivan was full. I couldn’t see any seats for us. But the alternatives were not much better. We piled in after I demanded a toilet break. Admittedly, I was a bit cranky after a six-hour bus ride. Our seats were at the back of the van beside two drunk locals. We had one more tourist with us who somehow squeezed in beside us. It wasn’t pretty, but the driver promised it was only three more hours.

And for once the estimate was true. Three hours later we did in fact arrive in Ho Chi Minh City. So it is now time to relate the hotel booking story.

I have booked every single night of our trip (after leaving India) with agoda.com. Every hotel has been exactly as described and I have been completely over the moon about this service. But when booking for HCMC, I was intrigued by a hotel suggested in the Lonely Planet. Of course, most hotels in the Lonely Planet do not book through Agoda or Expedia. I was forced to book through the hotel directly which only confirms within 24 hours. I had only booked the night before and we had not received confirmation by the time we left Sihanoukville. So when we arrived in HCMC after 11:00 pm, we did not know if we had a reservation or not. I was skeptical again. Most hotels recommended by Lonely Planet are fully booked unless you plan ahead. But our only option at this point was to negotiate a cab ride and make our way to the hotel.

Another miracle. When we walked into the hotel close to midnight the man at the desk said “You must be Naomi?”

What can I say? It all came to pass. Not as advertised, and a hell of a lot longer than expected, but we made it to our destination from one country to another, in one piece, without a bus ticket, or anyone even knowing our names. By the next morning we were Vietnamese Dong ‘millionares’ (the exchange rate is 21,000 Dong to the dollar) and a new city and country to explore.

It is all about expectations. We are in a different world. Things are done differently here. But somehow they get done. But enough cvetching, my next post will tell you all of the great experiences we have had in Vietnam!


  1. Once again...this does NOT sound like fun! I hope you cross the next border in the air!

  2. Oy what a mess! Glad you guys are safe and 'settled', I can't wait to hear the next upside to your adventure!